A different generation of journalism

Written by B.G. Verghese | Updated: Dec 29 2011, 08:59am hrs
A generation has passed since NS Jagannathan formally retired from journalism as editor of The Indian Express, at the end of a distinguished career. That was in 1992. He was among the last of the old guard for whom the media was a mission in communication, analysis and persuasion. He had turned 89 when he passed away in Bangalore on December 24, after a prolonged illness.

Like all men of dedication, he did not retire. He soldiered on, writing a chatty monthly column for the Tamil magazine Kanaizhi titled If You Ask Me. He was also on the board of consulting editors of the Indian Review of Books, Chennai, until it folded, and the Book Review, Delhi. A student of English literature, NSJ was an avid reader and wrote with clarity and elegance, a gift that added greatly to his stature as a journalist.

He was schooled in Madras and attended Presidency College, taking a degree in English. Thereafter, he taught at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, with VV John, the educationist, and then at Maharajas College, Udaipur, before leaving academia to join the Indian Revenue Service. He remained with the government for 12 years until 1961 but finding tax issues rather prosaic, joined Indian Finance, an economic journal published from Calcutta. He switched to The Hindustan Times some years later and was a most valued colleague of mine during the years I was editor of HT from 1969 to 1975.

NSJ was a somewhat reserved, even shy, and gentle person, but a rock-solid friend and deputy. He was a leader writer at HT and did the late night annual budget edits, apart from writing columns on topics of interest. He was also a pillar of support in redesigning HT and its Sunday, evening and international editions and thoroughly approved of our policy of emphasising social development, a grossly neglected area in Indian journalism, especially at that time. Those were days when newsprint was short and all writing had to be crisp and pointed.

I recommended to KK Birla, the proprietor, that Jagannathan should take over from me on my volunteering to retire and work under him as part of a policy I advocated of rotating editors. Unfortunately, Mr Birla had other views, and responding to political pressures, removed me during the Emergency in 1975. NSJ was thoroughly indignant about the Emergency and was so distraught by developments in HT that he resigned to move on to The Statesman in Calcutta.

But the day the Emergency was brought into effect, HT was able to bring out an early morning supplement giving the news before total censorship was clamped down. Jagannathan was among those who was hauled out of bed at 3 am to bring out the supplement, which we hawked on the streets before the HT management stopped the press and seized the printed copies. That was a memorable but very sad morning. NSJ returned to Delhi some years later as editor of The Financial Express and, following tumultuous events in The Indian Express, was appointed editor of that paper, from which he finally retired in 1992. Through all his Delhi years and even later, he was a staunch supporter of the Media Foundation, of which I am chairman, and published a tract for it that he later expanded into a book on the history of Indian journalism.

While in Bangalore he went on to edit an English translation of PS Sundarams Kamba Ramayana from the Tamil in 2002-04. Sundaram had been another of his colleagues in Ravenshaw College.

Jagannathan was a staunch upholder of the freedom of the press and the readers right to know and of the editors independence within the framework of a papers policy. He analysed all of this in a chapter on Ownership Patterns and Functional Relationships that he wrote in 1988 for a volume titled Beyond Those Headlines: Insiders on the Indian Press that was published by the Media Foundation. It was balanced, cogent and analytical. That was Jagannathans style. He belonged to an age when editors were editors and had not been abolished or kicked upstairs with big titles and bigger salaries, but little authority or commitment. That was before managers took over, and the paid news era. I met NSJ while visiting Bangalore some years ago. He was distressed at these trends. With reason. That was not his style.

The author is a former editor of The Indian Express